Voices of Strength

Nelisiwe Xaba in “Correspondances.” Photo by Eric Bouet

… to be free you must take risks” – Nadia Beugré, Choreographer

Last week, Voices of Strength: Contemporary Dance & Theater by Women from Africa (Program A) opened New York Live Arts’ second season with two works: Correspondances by Kettly Noël (Haiti/Mali) & Nelisiwe Xaba (South Africa) and Quartiers Libres by Nadia Beugré (Cote d’Ivoire). Program A (and a Program B that I was not able to attend) are part of a MAPP International Productions mini-festival and tour.  A couple weeks ago, I spoke with Cathy Zimmerman about the development of the project. Many years in the making, it began, in part, due to Ralph Lemon’s Geography project, which brought Cathy and others into regular conversations with working African artists and has since spawned the development of The African Contemporary Arts Consortium (TACAC), a collection of organizations including MAPP, The Bates Dance Festival, Center for World Arts at the University of Florida, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco, Seattle Theater Group, the Kennedy Center, 651 Arts, VSA Arts of New Mexico/North Fourth Art Center, and the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta focused on developing “a dynamic exchange of arts and ideas between artists, arts organizations and public communities” across the US and the African continent. The progression of the project has included festival viewings in Europe and Africa, regular exchanges with the artists that included immersions in the artists’ home communities and a production residency at KVS in Brussels, at which many of the Voices of Strength artists met one another for the first time.

On Wednesday, I brought a group of 12 Aesthetics students from Hunter College’s MA in Dance Ed program to the Come Early Conversation on Africanist Aesthetics and to see the second night of Program A. To say it was an incredible evening full of shattered expectations is to put my experience too lightly. Beugré’s solo performance, in particular, was revolutionary. The Ivory Coast does not mess around. As Rachel Cooper from the Asia Society said to me afterwards, as I stood in the lobby with my jaw properly agape and unable to come up with anything useful to sum up the evening for my alternately aghast or exhilarated students: “Sometimes it’s good to be left speechless.”

I’d had my students read the essay by Joan Frosch that had been commissioned for the project by MAPP and TACAC. I would strongly urge Culturebot readers who have already seen the programs in Chicago or New York or are planning to see upcoming shows to follow the link to the essay here (or downloading it off of MAPP’s website) and read it before or after the show (or both). Or, if you are missing the whole thing, go read it anyway and get some learnin’ on you. If there is one very clear message to come from the Voices of Strength project it is that our expectations of “African performance work” have been restrictive, at the very least. Frosch opens her essay by exposing the hidden undertones of this perpetuated ignorance among us:

A yawning gap best approximates the American narrative on Africa. A
familiar set of stereotypes stoked by a mostly disinterested media props up the old
storyline. You know…it’s the one on poverty, disease, conflict, and corruption. The
typical tale frames Africans as one-dimensional victims of despair, not complex
people “like us.”

Bill T. brought up his own misconceptions in a more dance specific way during the Come Early talk. He spoke about how all of his expectations of what female artists from Africa would be exploring and how those explorations would manifest physically on stage had been exploded during the previous night’s performance. His statements were a perfect foil to my own confused assumptions that had led to having my students also read Kariamu Welsh Asante’s Commonalities in African Dance: An Aesthetic Foundation to prepare for the evening’s work.  As student Elizabeth Portnoy noted, in an alignment with Bill T.’s anticipation of the evening, she had been led to expect that:

because the performers were women from Africa, the pieces would involve tribal music, vibrantly colored costumes and soulful, polyrhythmic movements of multiple body parts.

Or, as fellow student, Nina Goldman noted:

I came with expectations that there would be an “African” feel to the pieces and I fault myself for connecting the word women and Africa into one idea. What I saw on the stage were three women. Did they represent Africa? Maybe. This evening was about woman regardless of culture, race or ethnicity and was summed up by Kettly Noel in Correspondences when she says “I am a global woman.” Being African clearly informs these performers but it was not the dominant aesthetic guiding their performances.

Imagine expecting American artists to work on thematic elements of frontier-ism or to incorporate clogging or, for that matter, the aesthetics of the Wampanoag. “Africa” and “African” are no more static as signifiers than any other should be, but it’s been easy to remain ignorant to the sophistication of artists from this continent, despite the rapid growth that can be easily quantified in the IMF’s projection for it as the fastest growing economy of any continent in the next five years.

The concerns for these artists run parallel to any American artist working under the constant duress of systems enforcing continued economic and social exclusions. However, where I sometimes feel submerged in the growing tide of a disenfranchised dance community, the women on stage Wednesday night have channeled their aesthetic and socio-political struggles into a kind of potent, sometimes whimsical (though often biting) form of suffrage. The Voices of Strength project creates a platform for accurate representation for these artists. They don’t have to speak for ALL women from ALL of Africa, or even their countries of origin. But, it was clear from Xaba’s first uber-couture entrance and Noel’s endless, air kissing of the audience in the early parts of Correspondances that these savvy women can claim cultural omnivorism (read, the new elite) with haughty ease. And, that, in chatting about seemingly frivolous concerns (fashion, appearance, money) before an eventual onslaught of graphic imagery, they revealed themselves as full-fledged delegates in a very contemporary arena. Meanwhile, Beugré’s eviscerating Quartiers Libres is all active voice, even in its more reflective moments. Her performance is wrought in the fires of imperialism and she burned through her exhaustive solo with a scalding fervor that incited many a jaded New Yorker off their asses (and to our feet) at its conclusion. In fact, at one point, members of the staid, critical community could easily be heard whooping and bursting into applause from the sheer, visceral contact high. These works were full of wit and pathos. And, yes, okay… their voices were strong, but also eloquent, considered and gloriously unrelenting.

From NYLA’s blog about the previous night’s Stay Late discussion:

…themes confronting personal freedom, risk taking (as displayed both on and off the stage), as well as the need to subvert and expand cultural expectations were the driving force for what became an intensely complex dialogue. While no finite answers were found, it’s clear that the presence of these contemporary female artists (and numerous others who create work on the African continent) in the global discourse of live performance has given birth to a new African aesthetic that is deeply rooted in African traditions while not being restricted by them.  These women push against the categorical, the definable, and the easily classified.

The tour continues. So, hit that road trip now:

Sep 28 – Sep 29, 2012
Seattle, WA
Seattle Theatre Group
Oct 4 – Oct 5, 2012
Washington, D.C.
The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts
Oct 10 – Oct 13, 2012
Minneapolis, MN
The Walker Art Center
Oct 19 – Oct 20, 2012
San Francisco, CA
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

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